Happy Birthday, Professor T !

Jrrt_1911

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January 3, 2016 · 1:23 pm

Tonight’s poem: ‘As the Ruin Falls’

As the Ruin Falls

All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:
I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.

Peace, reassurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,
I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:
I talk of love –a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek–
But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.

Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack,
I see the chasm. And everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.

For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains.

— C. S. Lewis

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Songs for winter

I have found it difficult to write anything for several days; my heart feels like it’s got a hand tightly clenched around it. So, instead, here are some beautiful songs and links on sadness, loss, and “the touch of tears in mortal things”.

Many of these are Christian in origin and explicitly religious in tone, but I find them strangely beautiful and apt for this season in spite of one’s specific religious beliefs or the lack of them. Most of these are courtesy my general trawling around the net. I’m specially thankful to two magnificent blogs – Corymbus and A Clerk of Oxford – for most of these treasures. May they both keep writing for a long, long time to come.

  • This beautiful interpretation of a prayer (Psalm 86) by Gustav Holst.
  • This Christmas carol by Christina Rossetti, one of the best Victorian poets that few have heard of (‘In the Bleak Midwinter’)
  • Another lovely medieval carol, performed by the Cambridge Singers.
  • Almost anything by Enya or Anúna, though this is particularly apt.
  • Finally, perhaps the saddest poem in the world. “In sorrow endeth every love but thine, in the end”, indeed.

 

 

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Not Earth’s glory

…Warað hine wræclast, nales wunden gold,
ferðloca freorig, nalæs foldan blæd.

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In Which God Asks Us to Be Less Religious

Once upon a time, not so long ago, a seemingly devoted middle-aged son picked up the phone and called his elderly parents.

Son: Good morning, Mummy ! Good morning, Papa ! I just wanted to tell you that I really love you !

Parents (pleased): We love you too, son !

Son: I think you’re the best parents – in fact, you’re the only good parents in the world !

Parents: Uh, ookay ?

Son: … so I’m going around killing anyone else who claims their parents were good too !

Parents: Wait, what ?!

Son: Also I’m making sure my kids dress up the same way as you two did when you were children, back in the 1930s ! And study the same science textbooks (so no quantum mechanics/DNA for them, nope!) We should return to the pure culture of our ancestors !

Parents: …

Well, alright. Now that I’ve got my snarky anecdote out of the way, let me confess to something very unfashionable: I am kind of a theist. Not an atheist, a “theist”. Which is to say, I believe there is a God, or a Divine, or a Something Beyond Us.  At the same time, I’m not a fan of organized religion.  So I find it incredibly amusing when people come up with imaginative ways to placate God such as not eating meat/drinking alcohol (and better still, forcing other people to not eat meat or drink alcohol!), dressing modestly (whatever that means) or of course, the favourite: skewering, blowing up or lynching everyone who disagrees with you on religion.  Why we imagine, for even a second, that any self-respecting God would be jolly pleased by these tribal re-enactments I don’t know. In fact I’m surprised he (or she) doesn’t get a giant headache and stay in bed all day. Actually, given current events, he probably is doing just that. (Fun fact: Did you know that Kaliyuga is actually Cali-yuga, i.e. that cosmic day when God gets so tired of this  nonsense that he takes the week off and goes to Southern Cali-fornia ? *crickets*)

I’ve come across lots of awesome arguments for why you should be an atheist, but few people exhort you to defect  to the confused theist- but-nonreligious space. (I call it the Grey Side). So here is my humble attempt to marshall some strictly personal thoughts on why everyone in the world who is a theist, as a believer in whichever God or Goddess you would like to believe, should seriously consider taking a mental sabbatical from whichever religion has sprouted up around said God/Goddess, if they really believe in him(or her).

[ Obligatory warning: The views discussed below are personal, my own, and not intended to offend anyone. I cannot make this clear enough. If you are likely to be offended by any discussion of religion, or anything that is not “orthodox”,  this article will be injurious to your health. If you support any organizations which believe in “our way or the highway”, please go away, like, right now.  Yep. I am intolerant of intolerance.]

Consider, now, what the Supreme Divine is supposed to be, and what we have made of him. (I’m going to use he in the rest of this post just for convenience, but feel free to think of her as She – I personally do).  He is supposed to be All-Wise, All-Gracious, full of tolerance and understanding and mercy, the ultimate summit of existence. He is supposed to be the One towards whom all our striving towards perfection ultimately leads. Poets and saints of every persuasion have thrilled towards that something which is “afar from the sphere of our sorrow”.

And we have taken this ultimate summit of existence and converted him, in our minds, into a morality machine interested only in people’s food habits and sex lives and dress sense who doles out cookies and raps-on-the-knuckles like a primary school teacher. I am not even going to address the minority of crazies that believe God is some kind of sadist who’s only satisfied with literal human sacrifice. It looks like we have successfully made God in our image – taking our worst faults, our deepest insecurities, and magnifying them thousand fold.

I like to think of humanity’s attitude to God in terms of two levels.  The first level is the one most of us are familiar with, where we collectively send about 10^10 personal prayers per year – prayers  which crudely translate into “God, I need your help, please give me XYZ thing please please okay ? I will totally adore you if you do this” – as though he were a P.A.

Even then, in some people and in some moments, one gets momentary glimpses of (1) faith for the sake of faith, unshaken by personal crises (2) elements of unselfishness, as when one prays to God moved by empathy for another’s sufferings and (3) the faint stirrings of questions about the meaning of life, about whether this ordinary life is all there is or if we can aspire to something slightly higher and more fulfilling within the limits of existence.

The higher level is that at which people like Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, St Francis of Assissi,  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rabia al-Basri and others operated. (Please insert others here as per your personal preferences/traditions). These men and women did not consider God, or spirituality, as a mere helper, as a great friend-philosopher-guide among the travails of ordinary life. Rather they considered ordinary life as an adjunct or a stepping stone to spirituality. It would be silly to say they truly believed in God or that they were merely very pious people. They lived for God. I can’t really understand how that works, being a Class A selfish person, but somehow these guys managed it. I believe one calls them saints.

Here is my thesis: while religion was the entry point into their philosophical/mystic/spiritual journey for many of these people, they usually left it far, far behind, to the utter incomprehension of their co-religionists. My hypothesis is that there is far more in common between Ramakrishna, the 19th century Bengali Hindu mystic and Rabia al-Basri, the 8th century Turkish Muslim saint, than between Ramakrishna and a “normal” Bengali Hindu person.  If you could bring them together face-to-face and somehow took care of the translation difficulties , I suspect Rabia and Ramakrishna would be able to communicate easily, using concepts quite familiar to each other.

The difficulty is that religion is an obstacle in the way of our being really devoted to God, of being – for the want of a better word – spiritual. And if you are sincerely into believing in God, and not merely appearing religious, you should worry about that.

Historically, we seem to have packaged everything into the jurisdiction of religion except God himself. Religion has historically been the No.1 method for social control, for ensuring law and order before the concepts of democracy and justice became (relatively) popular. It may have been necessary for a stage in human existence when people were so amoral, so violent and so foolish that society would only function if everyone was completely scared into submission by the constant repetition of horrifying supernatural calamities if they did not follow some norms relevant for that age. Perhaps there are still people and societies who fall into this category, but on the whole, do we want to self-identify as one of them? Wouldn’t it be more dignified to want to be altruistic or spiritual or whatever because one believes in being that, for its own sake, and not because of fear of threat/greed for reward? Wouldn’t it be better to delink our morality from fear? And I won’t even go into the Molotov cocktail that is the mixture of politics with religion.

May I make the humble suggestion that we take some time off mentally from the trappings of organized religions and from the cacophony about Islamist terrorism/meat bans/four children atleast /adarsh women et cetera, and go back to reading about, thinking about, and  understanding what God means to us personally ?  I fear that most people who are not atheists will not have the courage to do even that with humility, without prejudices and out of a real desire for understanding.

And because misunderstanding is the cause of half the world’s suffering, I should end this rant with the words of the poet:

A little learning is a dangerous thing ;

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring :

There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,

And drinking largely sobers us again.”

 

P.S – I realize, of course, that I’m mostly preaching uselessly to a nearly nonexistent choir here. No would -be ISIS terrorists are ever going to read this post and go, “Holy shit, we should probably all start composing Sufi poetry right now instead of killing everyone in sight who likes music and sports and looking good and all the little human things that make life worth living. Oh, and Shams-o-kamar mein aapka jalwa nazar aaya is a brilliant song, let’s listen to it.” No pure Bharatiya people are going to read this and say “Gosh, maybe, just maybe I should try to read the Vedas and the Upanishads for myself and realize that some of that stuff advocated there is probably metaphorical.”

 

 

Notes:

[1] A story is told about Rabia al- Basri as follows:

One day, she was seen running through the streets of Basra carrying a pot of fire in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When asked what she was doing, she said,”I want to put out the fires of Hell, and burn down the rewards of Paradise. They block the way to Allah. I do not want to worship from fear of punishment or for the promise of reward, but simply for the love of Allah.” [ From Wikipedia]

[2] I had a lot of fun looking up the biographies of everyone referenced in this post.

 

 

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Who Shall Deliver Me ? – Christina Rossetti

God strengthen me to bear myself;
That heaviest weight of all to bear,
Inalienable weight of care.

All others are outside myself;
I lock my door and bar them out
The turmoil, tedium, gad-about.

I lock my door upon myself,
And bar them out; but who shall wall
Self from myself, most loathed of all?

If I could once lay down myself,
And start self-purged upon the race
That all must run ! Death runs apace.

If I could set aside myself,
And start with lightened heart upon
The road by all men overgone!

God harden me against myself,
This coward with pathetic voice
Who craves for ease and rest and joys

Myself, arch-traitor to myself ;
My hollowest friend, my deadliest foe,
My clog whatever road I go.

Yet One there is can curb myself,
Can roll the strangling load from me
Break off the yoke and set me free.

 

The relevance of this poem never quite goes away.

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Protected: How to Human

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“I am never merry when I hear sweet music.”

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Today’s German word

Mauerbauertraurigkeit.

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Beautiful Minds

Having studied engineering once, I’ve had minimal contact with mathematics- real mathematics, that is. I vaguely remember learning the basics of abstract algebra – just about enough to pass an exam – and the minimum that they teach you in a CS course: graph theory, sets, logic. So when I stared at the first page of G.H. Hardy’s essay A Mathematician’s Apology, I was tentative. A curious layman who wants to glance into the mind of a mathematician without the bother of understanding his works – was I anywhere near the kind of audience its author had in mind?

Godfrey Harold Hardy (1877-1947) is not a well-known figure. If at all the general public has ever heard of him, it would be likely due to his far more famous co-worker, Srinivasa Ramanujan. One of the first people to realize Ramanujan’s genius, Hardy was no minor mathematician himself. But apart from his work, he was not world-famous in the way an Einstein or a Bertrand Russell was. He wrote no philosophy and he did not particularly seem to care about philanthropic activity. He did not suffer from a dramatic mental illness or physical ailment, or hail from an impoverished family. To the wider world, he must have seemed a typical, eccentric, slightly boring elderly professor, with an inexplicable talent for cricket.

And yet he had a magical way with words. And at sixty-three, with most of his mathematical work behind him, he wrote a charming essay called The Mathematician’s Apology (apology here means justification rather than an expression of regret). In it, he set out to establish that his life’s work – the study of pure mathematics – was not futile.

The context of the essay lies in the two major views of technology that were current then, which remain (with minor changes) those held by most people today. The first is the commonsense view that technology (and science and maths) are useful because they promote the wellbeing of mankind. The second accepts the view of maths and science as mere handmaidens of technology, but sounds a note of warning: science is not always a force for good. (Think anti-GMO campaigners, ecological groups, anti-nuclear power groups and so on). Hardy rejects both these views and sets out a third alternative.

What makes some brilliant people become mathematicians over, say, Wall Street investment bankers ? Hardy claims they are driven by two major forces: first, intellectual curiosity, and second, ambition. Ambition might seem puzzling, until he explains what he means in more detail:

What we do may be small, but it has a certain character of permanence; and to have produced anything of the slightest permanent interest, whether it be a copy of verses  or a geometrical theorem, is to have done something utterly beyond the powers of the vast majority of men.

In other words, mathematicians such as himself are motivated by the need for fame of a different kind, the need for their names to be remembered down the ages. It sounds too idealistic to be true, yet while you are reading the essay you find yourself empathizing with him.

He then develops the major point of the essay: that mathematics is an intrinsically worthwhile human activity, regardless of any benefits it brings to humanity in general. Hardy’s position here is strictly “art for art’s sake”. He claims not to care about the practical applications of differential calculus or the theory of primes. In fact, he remarks that from the mathematical point of view, “it is the dull and elementary parts of applied mathematics, as it is the dull and elementary parts of pure mathematics, that work for good or ill”.

It is not the application, but the cold beauty of what he calls “mathematical reality” that he finds most attractive. Mathematical reality, he says provocatively, cannot be distorted by the observer unlike physical reality:

317 is a prime, not because we think so, or because our minds are shaped in one way rather than another, but because it is, because mathematical reality is built that way.

So Hardy leaves the question of usefulness open, preferring to concentrate on the inherent beauty of the subject. Perhaps he felt himself unequal to the philosophical task of defending “aesthetics” in general against “utility”. But more likely, perhaps his writing the essay was a justification for himself, a defense of the worth of his own life.

Four years after writing the essay, Hardy attempted suicide. Was he accused one time too many of the crime of being an ivory-tower intellectual? We do not know.

Famously, Hardy completely failed to imagine a world where the theory of prime numbers and modular arithmetic might become entangled with everyday life. We interact with these terrifying-sounding concepts every time we purchase a book online, complete a netbanking transaction or even log in to our Gmail accounts. In an irony that Hardy himself would have relished, his own work in number theory has helped in driving its numerous applications today.

GH Hardy

The (Cambridge) don.

“I still say to myself when I am depressed, and find myself forced to listen to pompous and tiresome people,”Well, I have done one thing you could never have done, and that is to have collaborated with both Littlewood and Ramanujan on something like equal terms.”- GH Hardy

References:

  1. “A Mathematician’s Apology” by G.H Hardy (1940) : Available at : http://www.math.ualberta.ca/mss/misc/A%20Mathematician%27s%20Apology.pdf (PDF)
  2. The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan by Robert Kanigel (1991)

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